Joyce Carol Oates’ novel revolving around the deterioration of the cookie-cutter ideal family features a number of characteristics from which I typically repel: an imposed detachment from or barrier between characters and reader, predictability, and a desperately slow progression of the plot. However, in this case, it is Oates’ contribution of these elements precisely that make this family saga so excruciating and wonderful.
Oates crafts her story similarly to that staple scene in a B horror picture (although clearly she deserves much greater credit than such)-the audience sees the killer gradually approach the next victim and braces himself for the inevitable blow the poor sap will receive, simultaneously pleading with the victim to “turn around” but also anxiously awaiting to see the victim’s gruesome end. In We were the Mulvaneys, the consequences for the members of the family based on their actions after the “incident” come as no genuine shock. It’s the build-the delicate, painfully slow demise of the Mulvaney family and their reputation, all the while striking the family unaware, that made this story so powerful. I was torn between wanting the Mulvaneys to finally realize they were making all the wrong choices and wanting to see just how far they could sink. All the while Oates reminds me that I have no influence on the ultimate outcome of this family, I may only act as a passerby and that isolation from the reader makes this story that much more heart-wrenching.
On the more surface, style side of things, Oates writes more realistic dialogue between her characters than practically any author I’ve ever encountered. I imagine her work in playwriting lends to this ability of creating a fluid conversation. Because of the pace and the tone that Oates sets, I didn’t feel like any aspect of the narrative or the action was too forced or dramatic. Oates words strike me as raw and vivid and haunting. I couldn’t peel my eyes away from the book.
I’ve been intentionally vague in providing any sort of summary for this book because, just as Judd Mulvaney reflects after his family’s unraveling, “for what are the words with which to summarize a lifetime, so much crowded confused happiness terminated by such stark slow-moving pain?” Joyce Carol Oates answers the question her own character poses, and she does so brilliantly over the course of some 450 riveting pages.